John C. Rodrigue. Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xvi + 224 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2728-5.
Reviewed by C. Wyatt Evans (Department of History, Drew University)
Published on H-South (December, 2001)
The Ambiguities of Labor in Sugar Country
The Ambiguities of Labor in Sugar Country
What strategies did freedmen adopt in adapting to the postwar southern labor market? And how successful were they in imposing their economic demands on their former owners? The traditional paradigm holds that freed slaves sought land and avoided labor contracts. Hence the preference for sharecropping and tenancy in the cotton South. In Reconstruction in the Cane Fields John Rodrigue argues the particular conditions of Louisiana's sugar economy led freedmen there to favor wage labor. More importantly, they successfully established a free market for their labor, despite planter intransigency, through collective action and by exploiting cane sugar's critical harvest calendar.
Against previous studies emphasizing white planters' effective manipulation of labor conditions, this study asserts free labor's successful activism. But Rodrigue also acknowledges the freedmen's success rode on the fate of Louisiana's Reconstruction government. With the coming of Redemption in 1877 (Louisiana's role in the 1876 presidential election is well known,) their status quickly eroded. Planters engaged the power of the state to control their work force. The study's epilogue confirms free labor's demise: when workers organized by the Knights of Labor struck at the beginning of the 1887 harvest, violence ensued. White militias hunted down the strike's black leaders in what came to be known as the Thibodaux Massacre. Once broken, strikers returned to the plantations where they endured low wages, racist treatment, and the worst of all affronts to wage labor--payment by scrip--into the next century.
Despite its ambiguous conclusion, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields offers a detailed social history of wage-labor's development in sugar country. It thus represents a valuable addition to the growing literature on regional economies in the postwar South. Based on narrative sources and existing statistical analyses, it proceeds chronologically beginning with the federal occupation in 1862 and ending with Redemption in the 1880s. An introductory chapter spells out the conditions of slavery on the sugar plantations. Rodrigue also devotes several thematic chapters to exploring the technical and economic dimensions of sugar production in postwar Louisiana.
Sugar was a time-sensitive crop, especially in Louisiana's sub-tropical climate where frost always threatened the mature cane. Once cut, the cane had to be immediately processed through rolling-mills and reduction vats to produce the granulated end product. Harvesting became an around-the-clock operation dependent upon a large, organized, and motivated work force. Rodrigue's lively prose and grasp of detail paints a convincing portrait of how these conditions made planters vulnerable to labor disruptions. They could ill afford, at least until the fall of Reconstruction, to alienate their workforce by resorting to violence or imposing unacceptable conditions. This is the opening Rodrigue argues freedmen actively exploited in transitioning from slave labor to a free labor market. In marked contrast to the rhythms and physical dispersal of cotton sharecropping, the time factor and the concentration of freedmen on sugar plantations facilitated their organization and negotiating strength.
Rodrigue emphasizes the factor of "ideological transformation" in explaining white planters' responses to the labor revolution they faced. Some made the change, adapting their viewpoints and hiring practices to a free labor market. Others resisted and fought to retain "mastery" over the former slaves. Extracts from planters' correspondence clearly reveal their frustration with the assertiveness of the freedmen. In an interesting twist, it was the planters who sought the intervention of federal officials (and later the state government) in controlling wages and labor mobility. Responding in part to the planters' demands, between 1862 and the end of 1868 (when the Freedmen's Bureau ended its oversight of labor contracts,) federal officials established wage rates, work rules, enforced contracts, and mediated disputes.
Rodrigue believes this intervention was another factor encouraging development of a wage-labor system over the alternatives of sharecropping and tenancy. Arguably, however, the effect of intervention was to introduce an element of ambiguity into the free labor equation from the very start: the regulation of labor placed the industry in an economic limbo between the old regime of slavery and the unrestricted capitalism that followed. Without obscuring the obvious factor of racism, how a system of free labor could hope to establish itself in this space becomes the study's central (and unresolved) question.
Mindset, however, was not the only problem. Due to the ravages of war and transformations within the industry itself, Louisiana sugar planters faced a double-whammy. While their own output fizzled, world production soared dramatically in the post-war decades. The result was lost market share and increasing pressure to modernize production. Many planters succumbed to the combined effects of their inability to adapt, tight credit, increased operating expenses (in large part due to the requirement to pay wages), lowered output, and sugar's drop in price. An analysis of the post-war sugar-planter elite reveals that only a third of the pre-war planters survived into the 1880s. Total landholdings, however, did not decrease and consolidation became the pattern. Successful planters also resorted to the modernization of sugar processing as a means of overcoming the "labor problem." By the mid-1880s, steam-driven mills and vacuum-pan evaporators had replaced earlier technologies. "Big Sugar" was born. Rodrigue's analysis suggests that free labor's assertiveness may have prompted, in part, the economic and technological responses contributing to its own demise. This is an important point for comparing the history of Louisiana sugar workers to the situation of wage labor elsewhere in the United States. The loss of worker autonomy and deskilling are pervasive themes in the history of late nineteenth-century labor: how did black sugar workers fare compared to their fellows, white and black? Once again we face the question of determining exactly what "free labor" entailed on Louisiana's postwar sugar plantations.
The destiny of Louisiana's black sugar workers following emancipation makes for a complex story. Rodrigue deserves credit for providing a multi-faceted explanation in which race, economics, technology, politics, and agricultural practice all receive their due. If he is over-optimistic in assessing black labor's success, he freely acknowledges the factors that hampered economic justice. The one point meriting further discussion is the important concept embodied in the term "free labor." Rodrigue briefly discusses free labor ideology in his introduction and in the course of his narrative makes tantalizing reference to the diverging interpretations accorded the concept by planters and workers. Unfortunately a fuller discussion never develops.
As this review has hopefully pointed out, the free labor situation described in this study--despite the appearance of wage and contract mechanisms--included elements of ambiguity from the very start. Greater exploration of how participants understood the concept of free labor may have helped resolve the study's ambiguous moments. How exactly did the freedmen develop their understanding of free labor, as a concept? And how did planters respond to this concept? What sources may have been available to the freed slaves in forming their views on the matter? Did the Freedmen's Bureau, or black politicians, engage free labor rhetoric in their championing of the freedmen's economic cause? Did planters and other whites construct a counter-discourse? The appearance of the Knights of Labor late in the game certainly suggests the contest in the cane fields included an ideological component which may have found expression in newspapers, public speeches, sermons, and Louisiana's state assembly.
Despite this shortcoming, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields provides a solid look at how labor relations evolved in one region outside the cotton South. And while the story told includes the familiar litany of racial violence and economic oppression, Rodrigue's uncovering of the workers' efforts to determine wages and job conditions adds to our understanding of how the freedmen struggled to shape their world.
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C. Wyatt Evans. Review of Rodrigue, John C., Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880.
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